Saturday: Another early start, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Having packed my bags the previous night, grated some cheese onto my beans on toast, I’m off to the last full weekend of the year with the British Mingolf Association. The Cambridgeshire and Essex Open today and the British Doubles tomorrow at Dunton Hills in West Horndon. My hopes for the weekend are high. In 2015, I finished second. In 2016, I finished second, again, but won my first event with the British Doubles. It’s fair to say this course holds a lot of good memories for me. Dunton Hills is like no other on the tour. It’s at least three times longer than what we’re used to with rough borders, deadly swings on putts and shots that once they’re overhit, they are long gone. It’s a real thinking man’s track. I love it.
I had dropped by five weeks earlier after the Worthing Open, as Dunton Hills is on the route back home. I hit a few shots and ate some lunch before heading off. I just wanted to check some of the more trickier second putts. My notes seem good to go. Onto today, I just want to get in the rhythm of rounds. I start at the 14th, which will be my start hole with Owen Johnson. The weather is perfect today, no wind, the sun is out, as are the shades of flesh that only the British can display. After a couple of hours, we’re underway. Thirty four nervous folk head out to the closest thing we have to Prishtina golf.
The trick here is to put yourself in a position for the best possible spot for a simple second. This is Dunton Hills, it doesn’t necessarily happen that way. Those that can go on a run of pars will do well. I start a little shaky, dropping five shots in my first eight holes. Owen is matching me, playing as good as I’ve seen him. I then hit a purple patch, only dropping one more for a 42, could have been better if the lip outs… yeah, always the lip outs. I’m starting to sound like everyone else. Owen breaks 50 for the first time at the course. I’m delighted for him. I’m two off the lead held by Mark, who is just one off the course record. In between rounds, I go and grab an overpriced egg mayonnaise roll but it’s forgiven as it tastes great. In the club house, I hear peoples tales of woe, including one who said we shouldn’t be playing on courses like this. I reply, “it has eighteen holes in the ground, it’s game on, perhaps you should learn how to putt…”
The second round starts with six straight pars before I undo all the good work with a four. I lose my way for about fifteen minutes, clinging onto the hope that everyone else at some point will go through a spell like this. Owen can’t quite repeat his heroics of round one too. It’s a battle out there. Although I’m not so pleased with the middle episode on the third instalment, my score is about as good as it deserved, a 44. Mark matches his opener so I now find myself six off the lead but still in second. The field is massing, three back from me, so I have a little room to breathe. From there, we flood the bar, ordering food and drinks. I can guarantee this will be the busiest day of the year for Dunton Hills for food. I’m not on a health drive but love a cheese ploughmans. I just love cheese full stop. I spend lunch chatting to Charlie and Jack, two of the newer members of the tour, about some of the fun stories from events I’ve been to. After four and a half years, I’m now one of the more senior regulars amongst the players and it is good to keep these guys interested. We need them for the tour to continue.
With lunch eaten, I chat with Mark, partly to wish him luck, partly to get in his head a little. Mark has played a similar length of time as I have and we’re a similar standard. We’ve become good friends over the years and when the question was asked a few months ago who would be the next first time winner, I said it would be Mark Wood. He has a great chance to prove me right. Our playing partner in the last round is Ruth Burke, who had a cracking morning. I make a shabby start, taking a double bogey and falling a further shot back. Seven down is surely too much, but this is Dunton Hills. By the ninth, I’ve pulled it back to four. Ruth is having a great round, which is focusing me. I get it back to three at the next. Mark has a chance on the 11th to extend the lead but drags his two foot putt to the left. I see a chink of light, I think Mark is feeling the pressure.
From then on, I start to ramp up the anxiety, although Mark does gain one on the 13th. As we go into the final four holes, I’m four down. Going first out of the pair of us, I can smell the lead. I play a great tee shot off the back wall for a two, Mark is tentative and drops a three. Three down, three to play. The 16th is next, one of the hardest holes to get near. A three is a fair result. Expecting Mark to match it, I was amazed to see Mark roll his third short for it to go back to his feet. Two down, two to play. I don’t know what to think. I’ve been in Mark’s situation many times before and it isn’t nice. You just want the end to come. I would be gutted to snatch this if the long time leader were to lose it. Despite fighting for the title, I have human emotions. Mark deserves this. The 17th is the banana hole, a shot around a semi circle. I get an incredible break with a kiss off the near wall to kill the ball pin high a foot from the flag. Mark slithers his second past the hole. Oh my. One down, one to play.
At the last, I’m tempted to clobber the ball off the back to leave a simpler putt. Whatever I was thinking, I never hit it hard enough, trickling off the plateau to the right. I roll up for a three. If Mark can match it, he wins. His tee shot gets a great kick, leaving him two putts for the title. Not taking any chances, he places the ball next to the hole and takes the plaudits to join the winners circle. I’ve come second a number of times now but on this occasion. I’m happy to do so. I could the colour drain from Mark during the last half hour. Finally he can breathe. The field were catching us rapidly so I think we’re both thankful we had built up enough of a barrier.
I head off soon after the presentations to catch up with an old friend in Sudbury, around fifty miles from the course. I’m fed, watered, watered some more before we catch a pub band called Sushi and the Bad Cheese, who perform punk covers of maudlin tracks, such as Summertime and Ben. Brilliant end to the day.
Sunday: Oh man. As much fun as last night had been, the morning is an absolute bitch. I drag myself into the shower and set it to tepid. I can barely manage food. Not hungover, just worn down. Work is exceptionally busy as I’m smack in the middle of the harvest period. With the blowers on full in the car, I start coming to my senses at last. Today, I have a title to defend, the British Doubles. My partner from last year, Nuno, has gone into temporary retirement due to the birth of his son, Afonso. Luckily, I have a decent cover in Derek, my vice captain. We arrive simultaneously and get to work on the plan for the day. There are a couple of holes which I believe require a slow ball. This is Derek’s first experience with this type of sphere. It needs a firm touch and a belief that it will do what it does. It takes some getting used to. I think it is worth the risk.
Our group for the morning has been favourable to us. First up are the novices Charlie and Jack, who are still finding their way. We jump out of the blocks, not giving them a sniff as we wrap up a 5 and 4 victory. Next up are the Johnson’s. Sure as night follows day, every matchplay I take on Paul Johnson and a team mate. Both boxes ticked. Although we play well, no one would have beaten the Johnson’s on this form. They were quite sensational and we are well beaten 3 and 2. To qualify for the top half, we need to win our last match against father and son, Andy and Matty Exall. It takes us nine holes to share one before we drift into a success, 2 and 1. We top our group.
Food and drink follow. Rumours are flying around that Dunton Hills is going to be sold off for development. I’ve heard so many stories over the weekend about the future of the course, I don’t know what to believe. I’ll be devastated if this goes into a housing estate. During the break, I get contact lens problems so for the first time in my career, I’ll play in glasses. In our quarter final, we get drawn against Ruth and Rocky, one of the strongest partnerships left. They’re good and we fall behind. However, with five left, we’re back in front. From there, we choose this moment to play some shots to forget. Going to the last all square, a two would give us a win. Derek has a chance and misses high. On the way back, I do the same and my defence is over. I’m disappointed that it is finished here, having let this slip. We’re both down. With the way the competition is, we have to decide which position we finish in. Our opponents will be James and Adrian, a very strong pair from the home club. In the first six holes, we get blown away. Despite only being one over par, we’re three holes down. James, who has one of the best strokes on the tour, is in the zone. However, we’re digging deep. Over the course of the next ten lanes, we win six of them and win 3 and 2. Three over for a round there is phenomenal. That’s better.
All that’s left is to playoff for fifth and sixth. Charlie and Jack have recovered well from the mauling they received from us in the opening rubber. Very well. They’re sensational and we lose at the first extra hole. As we return to the clubhouse, we see a number of bags moved from their original position. There is an adder hiding under a bin. No one is entirely sure of what to do before Ted ushers it away from the curious crowd before it disappears down a drain. “Can it survive down there?”, says Ted. I’d like to think it will be thriving now. A slow drive home and a stop off for the KFC of eternal regret, I collapse through the front door and head straight to bed. I really hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Dunton Hills.